Tacoma News Tribune
November 18, 2007
The reaction by some public officials to the Nov. 4 election and the defeat of the Roads and Transit proposition was disappointing. I can understand the disappointment they expressed and their words of reflection.
But some took the results as a personal affront rather than listening to what citizens said with their votes. Rather than public hand-wringing, government needs to line up with its citizens.
For all of us in public office, it is time to lead and rekindle the discussion of how we address transportation needs in the Puget Sound region.
The issue is just too big. The challenges won’t go away. And elected and appointed officials have a shared responsibility of meeting these challenges.
Clearly, Proposition 1 was not what the public wanted. The first step in moving forward should be to ask citizens about their needs and what they are willing to support. We must engage them meaningfully to find out their expectations. They travel every day on our roads, highways and bridges. So they certainly understand the transportation issues we all face.
Then we need to assemble the region’s top leaders and best thinkers to build solutions around what citizens tell us – for both the short term and the long term. There are many bright, thoughtful people on all sides of our transportation issues. Their thinking should be tapped.
Proposals developed must focus only on critical needs that make a difference regionally. Those needs must take a significantly higher priority than such things as streetcars, trail extensions and roundabouts.
The state has moved ahead with addressing more immediate infrastructure needs such as the 520 Bridge. That is a good example of responding to an urgent issue. At the same time, the region should look at its significant transportation needs.
The state Auditor’s Office has a role to play. For our part, the recent performance audit on traffic congestion in the region should serve as a good starting point for any discussions. The audit was requested by the Legislature, which wanted our office to audit the state’s transportation system.
In advance of the audit, we actively engaged citizens across the state. From town hall meetings and focus groups we conducted in the Puget Sound area in the fall of 2006, more than 80 percent of citizens listed traffic congestion as the top priority among transportation issues.
The fact that the audit was citizen-driven should mean something and should ensure that it will not be tossed aside without a hint of consideration.
We contracted with a consortium of experts in the transportation field to conduct the audit. They came with a record of achievement and international reputations for transportation issues and congestion planning. The audit contained 22 specific recommendations and painted a comprehensive picture of congestion and what can be done to reduce it.
Certainly, we recognize that not everything in it would be embraced by transportation planners. But it contains a wealth of ideas that provide food for thought if not action.
For example, the audit identified steps that, without requiring additional resources, could reduce congestion between 15 percent and 20 percent over the next five years. Among them: Increase discretion over using HOV lanes, coordinate traffic signals on arterials with freeway exit ramps, expand promotion of car pools and public transit, and improve responses to traffic accidents. We could move forward with those short-term measures while we plan for the future.
The audit also points out that reducing traffic congestion has not been a top priority among state transportation officials. They list their priorities as safety, highway maintenance and preserving existing roads and bridges. Rather than minimizing congestion, however, DOT should address it along with those other priorities. They all are compatible, not mutually exclusive.
We learned from our extensive citizen outreach that congestion clearly is the primary focus of the public. So as a region, let us re-establish congestion as one of the priorities in our deliberations.
The audit recommends a single agency to oversee transportation planning in the region. It identifies 128 public entities with responsibilities for transportation planning and spending in Puget Sound. This complex mix of agencies is awkward at best. Quite understandably, their interests are narrowly focused.
At the same time, congestion knows no boundaries. One organization needs to coordinate the myriad of transportation planning activities and be positioned to decide what is best for the Puget Sound region. Planning for public transit and new lane capacity must be done together instead of independently.
The most overarching conclusion of the audit is that traffic congestion can be managed, controlled and reduced. It won’t be easy. There are no quick fixes. But this audit should encourage people throughout this region that transportation solutions can indeed be found.
My hope is that our report will trigger thinking that leads to action and helps find solutions to our compounding traffic problems.
Brian Sonntag, former Pierce County auditor, has been state auditor since 1993.